When was the last time you promised yourself you would stop yelling at your children over little things? The last time you lied to your child about an uncomfortable topic, because you weren’t ready to have “the talk”? Do you know the familiar feeling of shame that encroaches when you arrive at your child’s school or sports practice, late again? Even though these miss-steps are common for most parents, it’s easy for us to look across the street and think, “She really has it figured out. Why can’t I parent as well as she does?”
The reason we feel alone when we make a parenting mistake is that there is a disconnect in the messages we are given by society about parenting. On the one hand, there is the message that raising children is one of the hardest jobs you will ever have (which rings true every time we promise ourselves “next time I’ll handle this differently”). And on the other hand, there are the flood of idyllic parenting images we are constantly bombarded with. Mothers who can seamlessly juggle career, children, marriage and the perfect home. Facebook feeds of family vacations and endless childhood accomplishments. And the images we have internalized in our own minds of what a perfect parent is.
Starting at a young age, we all face pressure to perform well and begin to measure our self-worth in terms of what we accomplish. Once we have a taste of success, we find ourselves wanting more. We learn to stop judging an experience by what it feels like and to instead interpret whether the experience is valid based on its outcome. And when we feel we have fallen short, the shame can become paralyzing. We know that in our society “strong people” don’t ask for help so our choices are to try to figure it out alone or to hide the problem and hope that it goes away.
And when it comes to our children, there isn’t any room for “failure” as their parent—at least it can certainly feel that way. When we try to juggle too many balls and we don’t ask for help, it is often our relationship with our children that suffers. If, however, you have ever felt yourself wondering, “has parenting always been this hard?” or “surely there has got to be a better way…” you may be onto something. It turns out that the way we are parenting right now may be significantly harder than the way it has traditionally been done. In their book Mindful Parenting, Susan Bogels and Kathleen Restifo point out that our family structure changed with the evolution of the nuclear family in the 1950’s. We started having children closer in ages, and we moved away from raising our children with the support of extended family and trusted friends. Prior to that time, the phrase “it takes a village” was not just a euphemism, it was reality.
Today it is common for a couple to meet far from where they grew up, get married, and then start a family of their own with only occasional visits from their original support systems (extended family and childhood friends). When mothers or fathers make a choice to take time off from their careers to stay home with their kids they are expected to devote an enormous amount of energy into their children and to do it with very little external support. The stress of having to raise children without the support of a village compounded with the stress of trying to balance so many other things (perfect home, perfect marriage, side career etc.) can leave parents feeling like they are failing– but ashamed to admit it for fear of not measuring up.
It is important for parents to own the fact that parenting is hard. To remember that there is no such thing as a perfect parent and to recognize that everyone is struggling with trying to get it right. It is also important to remember that by making conscious choices to decrease stress in our lives, it is possible to start reclaiming joy in our relationships with our children.
Support from Family
Whether it means moving closer to your parents or seriously contemplating their offer to help watch your kids two days a week, consider whether these changes could improve your life for the better. If you’re not sure this is a good idea, think back to some of your own favorite memories as a child and consider whether your grandparents are a part of them. Would your kids benefit from more time with their grandparents? Consider whether the “advice” that is so painful to receive from your parents or in-laws would come as less of a sting if they were more regularly involved in your kids’ lives and perhaps more responsible for the end result. Remember that grandparents (and especially grandmothers) have played a role throughout history in helping families survive and thrive.
Support from Friends and Chosen Family
If living near family is not a feasible option, consider which trusted friends can become your village. Create authentic relationships based on trust and be honest about what your struggles are. Share babysitting responsibilities, recipes, and dinners. When you suspect that a friend is upset or needs your help, don’t be afraid to offer support even if it feels a little awkward at first. Being there for one another is how we reclaim our village.
Make changes that lead to less stress
Stress triggers our survival reflex and we all know how hard it is to parent with intention when we are in a state of fight or flight. Parents who have mastered the art of decreasing stress are better able to utilize parenting skills that work. Consider your life and think about ways that simplifying it may help. This could mean cutting back on scheduled activities (for both parents and children) and carving out down time when you disconnect from work responsibilities. It may mean prioritizing sleep for the entire family and making sure family dinners happen regularly.
Get professional support
We hire our accountants, plumbers, lawn specialist, our clergy, and the list goes on and on. But when we need help with parenting, somehow seeking professional help can seem unnecessary—even though we readily admit it’s the most important thing we’ll ever do. If you know that your family has too many stressors and not enough support, reaching out to a parenting specialist or a therapist may be the perfect catalyst for helping you to reclaim your priorities. Parenting is one of the most difficult jobs you will ever have and there is no such thing as a perfect parent. Asking for help from someone you can trust is a sign of wisdom not weakness.
I specialize in providing a safe space for parent to explore what is standing in the way of the relationships they want to have with their children. If you live in North Carolina, I would love to talk to you about making this a reality for your family.